‘Vaccine Century’ tells a little, hides a lot

Instead of celebrating find time to grieve many we lost; to mourn huge gaps in our healthcare system and our official responses, and to hold to account a PM who lies openly in our time of distress

Representative Image
Representative Image

Ranjona Banerji

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a self-congratulatory speech on October 22. The intent was to celebrate India having crossed the 100 crore or one billion Covid-19 vaccine mark, apparently known as a “vaccine century”. What exactly this means is unclear except to India’s adulatory media and Modi’s massive international fan club of jingoists.

How many nations in the world can boast to have administered a billion vaccines? Two. Because only two nations have a population of over one billion-- China and India.

China crossed this one billion vaccine mark sometime in June. So, was India the first country in the world to administer one billion Covid-19 vaccines? No. After China (1.49 billion people) and India (1.38 billion people), the next most populated nation is the United States at 331 million. Not even close to one billion. Even if they “celebrate” when everyone gets their third or booster dose.

Does one billion vaccines administered mean that one billion people have been vaccinated? No. The Covid-19 vaccines that India has opted for is in two doses. Crossing the one billion vaccine mark does not mean that one billion people have been vaccinated. It means that one billion vaccines can be added up between the 21.07% (Source: Our World in Data, as of October 22) who have been double vaccinated and 29.85% who have received only one dose and both figures add up to 51%.

But this finagling with numbers to hit some populist number of a century and to create one more publicity drive is par for the course when it comes to the Modi government. We have already been fed any number of meaningless acronyms, often renaming schemes implemented by other governments. So why not call one billion a century just for the fun of it?

More distressing is the outright lie by the Prime Minister that India has vaccinated everyone for free. India has not. India has given people the option of paying for their vaccines. This is unlike most of the world where vaccines have been given free to the people.

I understand that Modified economists will now spiral into some “nothing is free, someone pays for the exchequer” argument. We all get it. We all know that we are going to be fleeced for these vaccines. The difference is that most countries did not charge their own citizens twice, once in real money and once via taxation.

It was not that long ago – this June in fact – that the Modi government opened vaccines to the 18 to 44 age group. It allowed the two private vaccine companies – Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech – to charge all citizens in that age group, rates ranging from Rs 780 for SII’s Covishield to Rs 1600 for Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin. Following the national outrage, the Supreme Court of India had to step in. It called the Centre’s scheme “arbitrary and irrational”.

Interestingly, in its answer to the Supreme Court at the time, the Centre also claimed that India’s entire vaccinatable population would be covered by December 2021. This is the third week of October. We’ve managed 50% of the population. Will we manage 50% in three months? Don’t hold your breath.

On what basis then can the Prime Minister claim or infer that all vaccines in India were free? And even if Modi cheerleaders suggest he did not mean all, he meant some or any other excuse, the truth is that India’s biggest ignominy is that it stands out as a nation which charged its citizens going against the global trend of free vaccines.

Modi repeated the word “science” several times in his speech, claiming that India had used “science” to fight the virus. What a remarkably stupid statement. Everyone used science, not just India. In fact, Modi’s BJP, including several government ministers, stands out for trying to replace science with superstition and mumbo-jumbo. BJP ministers and members told us to stand in the sunshine, bathe naked in mud, drink cow urine, eat cow dung, eat papad to fight the virus. The Modi government lied about how Britain’s Prince Charles used Indian Ayurveda to fight Covid-19, a claim rebutted by the UK. The Ayush ministry consistently pushed unscientific “immunity” boosters.

Instead of celebrating, we should find the time to grieve the many we lost. To mourn the huge gaps in our healthcare systems and our official responses. And to hold to account a Prime Minister who lies openly in our time of worst distress.

(Views are personal)

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